Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) is a disorder caused by the exposure of a fetus to alcohol. It is a brain- and body-based disorder with both physical and mental effects. It is also associated with behavioural and learning disabilities. As a spectrum, those diagnosed with FASD may have a range of strengths and challenges, with no two individuals being alike. 

It is difficult to determine the prevalence of FASD given challenges in accessing and receiving diagnostic services. As a result, many cases remain undetected. It is estimated that approximately 7.7 per 1,000 births globally are cases of FASD. Older studies indicated that 1% of Canadians live with FASD while newer studies suggest that it is 4%, around 1.4 million Canadians

Globally, FASD is known to have a greater effect on populations with poorer social determinants of health, one of which includes people experiencing homelessness. Many people experiencing homelessness struggle with mental illness and substance use disorders. In fact in the United States, studies suggest that 30% of homeless population develop substance dependencies as a coping mechanism to deal with their lack of stable housing. 

FASD and People Experiencing Homelessness

According to this study, many individuals experiencing homelessness self-report a diagnosis of FASD. It is also possible that there are more people experiencing homelessness who have not been formally diagnosed with FASD as it often goes undetected. In addition, studies suggest that women experiencing homelessness tend to be more likely to have children with FASD, increasing the number of individuals experiencing homelessness with FASD. 

Those with FASD are more likely to experience various challenges which can contribute to their risk of experiencing homelessness. Unfortunately, the complexity of FASD and the challenges that individuals diagnosed with this disorder have are not fully understood by stakeholders and/or the community. For example, they are more likely to experience trouble with the law. Estimates suggest that 60% of individuals with FASD will have involvement with the justice system as either an offender or as a victim. This may be because many individuals with FASD experience difficulties obtaining permanent residency or adequate supports to address the challenges that they face. Another challenge for individuals born with FASD is that they develop an “increased sensitivity and vulnerability to life stress”, and as a result they are at a greater risk of developing mental health issues and substance use disorders. Research suggests approximately 90% of individuals with FASD struggle with mental health issues

There are also cognitive issues associated with FASD which can prevent these individuals from gaining access to housing. For example, people with FASD may struggle with managing time and money, memory issues, and struggle to understand the consequences of their behaviour.

More research is needed on this topic to fully understand the effects of FASD on people experiencing homelessness and to better address and support the needs of this population. To learn more, visit our topic page on FASD.

Note: We would like to thank the Canada Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder Research Network for providing additional insight and research for this blog.